Tom Arms’ World Review

China and USA

The Sino-American goalposts have changed. Two years ago, the Chinese economy was booming and the US was struggling to emerge from a damaging coronavirus pandemic.

But as Presidents Biden and XI met in San Francisco this week the American economy was booming at 4.7 percent. The Chinese economy was reeling from a burst property bubble and government crackdowns have led to a flight of foreign capital.

When the Chinese star was in the ascendant so were the sabre-rattling “Wolf Warriors”. But the changed circumstances has led to the dismissal of bellicose foreign minister Qin Gang and last month Xi replaced Defense Minister General Li Shangu who was under US sanctions for overseeing the sale of weapons to Russia.

Beijing cannot afford poor relations with Washington at the moment. And Washington – with the problems of Ukraine, Gaza and forthcoming presidential elections, doesn’t want to have to worry about China. All of which could explain why the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries managed a cordial meeting in San Francisco this week.

But will it hold and can they build on it? The question is still hanging. A week before the meeting US and Chinese diplomats held a meeting to discuss each other’s nuclear arsenals. It was the first such a meeting and a good sign.

Climate change is clearly a topic to build on. It is difficult for the two biggest economies to dispute the importance of saving the planet. There are differences on how to handle fossil fuels but agreement on methane gas emissions.

A big topic in the US is opioid abuse, in particular fentanyl. A sizeable chunk of the drug is produced in Chinese laboratories and shipped to America. Last year fentanyl was responsible for 75,000 American deaths. The two leaders agreed to discuss the issue further Xi stressed that the easiest way to stop the problem would be for Americans to stop buying the drug.

Touchiest topic is Taiwan. On that Biden-Xi agreed to disagree. But they did agree to resume communications between each other’s military establishments. These were suspended after the visit to Taiwan of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Both sides that it was vital for the opposing militaries to talk to one another to avoid accidents. As Xi put it: “Conflict and confrontation has unbearable consequences for both sides.”

Taiwan

The potential spanner in the Sino-American diplomatic thaw is January’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan.

At the moment the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) controls both the presidency and the parliament and opinion polls show them way ahead to stay in power.

This is not good news for either Washington or Beijing. This is because the DPP is moving Taiwan to declare itself an independent sovereign nation. This is opposed by Beijing because Taiwan would then be able to offer itself as a multi-party capitalist democratic alternative to the one-party autocracy on the mainland.

The US administration would be unhappy because an independent Taiwan would undermine its policy of “strategic ambiguity” which allows it bestow de jure diplomatic recognition on communist China while enjoying de facto relations with Taiwan.

The problem is an old one. It dates back to 1949 when the Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and claimed to represent all of China from the offshore island. Until 1979 successive American administrations agreed with him.

The unilateral independence route is not a foregone conclusion. The Kuomintang Party (KMT) is committed to watering down the independence demands and improving relations with Beijing. This week the party announced it was joining forces with the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) to fight the elections. The outcome could have far-reaching consequences.

Turkey and Germany

State visits are red carpet affairs. Big speeches. Big dinners. Big parades and big hugs between the visiting head of state and their host.

The state visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Germany this week is the glaring exception. It is being restricted to a single meeting between Erdogan and German president Walter Steinmeier and a private dinner with Chancellor Olof Scholz.

The reason is that the two countries find themselves at serious loggerheads over the Gaza War.

This was not the case back in May when Scholz invited Erdogan to Berlin. The Turkish president had just been re-elected and Scholz thought that it was important that the two countries cement their close relations.

The Turkish-German connection has had its ups and downs. But neither Scholz nor Erdogan can ignore the fact that they are NATO allies; Germany is home to the world’s largest Turkish diaspora; there are 1.5 million Turkish voters in Germany and Turkey is hosting 3 million Syrian refugees who would otherwise be marching into Europe.

So lots of good reasons to be nice to one another. Then Gaza happened. Erdogan’s electoral base is strongly Islamic and to keep them on board he has refused to condemn the Hamas attacks. Erdogan has even cast doubt on Israel’s right to exist.

Germany’s Holocaust guilt has left successive German governments Israel’s chief supporter in Europe’s political circles. Scholz has called Erdogan’s comments on the Gaza War as “absurd.”

In the meantime, German public opinion—in keeping with the rest of the Western world—is moving away from Israel towards the Palestinian cause and creating political divisions as it does so.   The last thing the German government wants is a mercurial Erdogan adding fuel to the fire.

UK

It has been a roller coaster ride for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week. And it has all been on the down slope.

It started with the sacking of outspoken far-right Home Secretary Suella Braverman. This was quickly followed by Braverman’s letter of resignation in which she accused the Prime Minister of lying and set herself up as standard bearer of the xenophobic Tory Party right.

Then came the return from the wilderness to the foreign secretary’s job of former PM David (now Lord) Cameron (an appointment which may have ups as well as downs).

And finally, the big one: The UK Supreme Court decision that the Sunak government’s policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was “unlawful.”

This is – or was – the flagship policy of the Conservative government. It was seen as one of the chief fruits of Brexit. For many voters the slogan of “take back control” meant control of British borders which in turn meant significantly reducing the number of immigrants and asylum seekers allowed to stay in the UK.

Braverman and the Conservative right-wing are keen to blame the block to their Rwanda policy on the European Convention on Human Rights and the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. Their solution: leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

The problem is that the European court is not their only obstacle. The UK Supreme Court ruled against sending asylum seekers to Rwanda because there was a good chance that the Rwandan government would send them to a dangerous third country.

This is called “non-refoulement” (from the French to push or force back). It is banned under the UN Convention on Refugees and three British laws – the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, the 2002 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act and the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Rishi Sunak has promised a new treaty with Rwanda and emergency legislation to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling. But the legal eagles say that with two international hurdles and three domestic, the prime minister should cut his losses.

The fact is that the British government’s Rwanda policy was ill-conceived, poorly planned and abysmally executed.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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